Paleo diet: what's it all about?

Arabella Forge
Going paleo: Make sure your beef has been roaming free.
Going paleo: Make sure your beef has been roaming free. Photo: Marina Oliphant

Remember when "low carb" was the buzzword for weight loss and good health? Before that it was all about "low fat, high carb". Now it appears we've gone way, way back. The paleolithic, or "paleo diet", is now taking centre stage in celebrity diets and fitness food culture.

The paleo or caveman diet is essentially a return to the hunter-gatherer, pre-agriculture diet of the paleolithic period. There are no cereal grains (such as wheat, barley, rye and oats) or rice, refined sugars, pasteurised dairy products or industrially processed oils.

Paleo adherents confine their diets to a range of foods including pasture-raised meat and animal products, wild-caught seafood, fruit, seeds, nuts and non-starchy vegetables. Many avoid potatoes because of their high glycaemic index while there's also an argument that the white potato was developed with the advent of agriculture and not before.

Proponents claim this is the diet homo sapiens evolved to eat, survive and thrive on. Researchers such as Dr Loren Cordain, a professor of Health and Exercise Sciences in Colorado, claim we share more than 99.9 per cent of the same gene pool as our hunter-gatherer predecessors, and their diet allowed them to become strong and healthy with an increased bone density and resistance to degenerative disease.

Paleo-diet advocates argue it was the advent of agriculture 10,000 years ago that spurned the beginnings of degenerative diseases in humans such as cancer, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.

The diet has its critics; its guidelines go against the National Health and Medical Research Council, which recommends the consumption of wholegrain cereals, rice, pasta and dairy products. It is also not supported by the Dietitians Association of Australia as it excludes several nutritious core foods and encourages restrictive eating. Critics also claim it fails to cater for nutrition recommendations based according to people's individual requirements.

Most health professionals agree that avoiding modern, industrial processed foods is a very good thing.

However, most health professionals agree that avoiding modern, industrial processed foods (such as refined grains, hydrogenated fats and an abundance of sweeteners) is a very good thing.

What's in the paleo diet?

Paleolithic diets were quite diverse but dependent on what was available locally; unprocessed animal, marine and vegetable sources from untampered, natural environments.

Seafood, meat and animal products

The diet is composed primarily of free-range meat from grass-eating animals, animal products and seafood for sources of protein and fat. Intensively reared animals raised on a diet of grains or grain-like substances will have a markedly different fatty acid and micro-nutrient profile compared to those which graze on pasture and are able to exercise regularly.

Paleo advocates such as Dr Loren Cordain (The Paleo Diet), Dr Boyd Eaton (Paleolithic Prescrip-tion) and Robb Wolff (The Paleo Solution) emphasis the consumption of lean animal products, high in protein and low in fat, with a small proportion of saturated fat.

In comparison, Dr Walter Voegtlin (The Stone Age Diet), Nona Gedgaudas (Primal Body, Primal Mind) and The Weston A. Price Foundation claim that fat was highly consumed by paleolithic groups and saturated fats were highly valued, with special importance placed on organ meats, marrow and extramuscular fats.

Vegetables, grains and sweeteners

The diet contains no cereal grains, legumes or cane sugar. Raw honey, fresh fruit or the occasional dash of unrefined maple syrup might be the only exception. The sources of carbohydrates include all non-starchy vegetables (essentially all vegetables excluding the white potato), fruits and natural sweeteners.

Dairy foods

Most paleo advocates eliminate the consumption of dairy foods, claiming that dairy foods were not widely consumed in Western culture until the beginning of the agricultural revolution, which began 10,000 years ago. While the consumption of dairy products did become more widespread during this time, there is archaeological evidence showing that dairy products were consumed in mountainous regions over 30,000 years ago.

Dairy foods have changed in their composition and nutrition profile with the introduction of pasteurisation, homogenisation and fat reduction during the past 50-100 years in conjunction with the growth of food processing. Prior to this, dairy products were always consumed raw, and fermented to make sour-tasting yoghurt, kefir, cheese or clabber. Plain, fresh milk was considered a delicacy as it would naturally sour very quickly.

Nuts, seeds and oils

Nuts and seeds and unrefined oils such as virgin olive oil, walnut, flaxseed, macadamia and avocado are allowed on the paleo program, whereas hydrogenated or heat-treated vegetable oils and margarine are not. Nuts and seeds can be used as a grain replacement to make breads, cakes and pancakes. And unrefined oils can be used as a replacement for butter or margarine.

Please note: Diets should not be undertaken without the supervision of a qualified health professional.

Recipe: Paleo bread with chia jam


For bread:

3/4 cup nut butter (store-bought or make your own)

5 eggs

2 tablespoons honey

1/3 cup coconut oil

1/4 cup chia seeds

1/2 cup nut flour (you can make this quickly and easily by blending any nuts in a fine meal until they resemble a crumbly-looking flour)

2 tablespoons coconut flour

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

pinch of nutmeg and cinnamon


Combine the nut butter, baking soda, eggs and honey to form a smooth paste.

Add the remaining ingredients and continue to blend. Place mixture in a 25cm bread tin and place in a pre-heated oven at 180C until skewer comes out clean.

Cook for 25-30 minutes.

For Jam:

1 cup rhubarb chopped into 1cm pieces

1 1/2 cups apple roughly chopped into 2cm cubes

1 teaspoon chia seeds

honey (optional)


Place rhubarb and apple in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil then reduce to a gentle simmer, leave to cook, partially covered for 40 minutes or until the fruit becomes soft. Once cooked, stir through the chia seeds and honey to taste. The jam needs to be kept in the refrigerator to prevent spoilage. Eat within 1 week.

* Recipe image: Photo by Simon O'Dwyer.

Are you on or have you tried the paleo diet? Share some of your meal suggestions (and challenges) in the comments below.